Yesterday I saw a young, teenage couple walking down the street hand-in-hand. They were dressed similarly in black clothes that suggested punk rockers on summer vacation, but the us-against-the-world defiance of their appearances was leavened by the tenderness with which they held hands. The bond of affection expressed in that gesture may not last the summer, let alone a lifetime, but for that one moment they were together in their own little world.
I’ve been holding hands a lot lately. Not so much with my lovely wife Carolyn, though she does occasionally take me by surprise by taking me by the hand, but with my father, who suffered a stroke two weeks ago. It is a gesture of comfort and connection for both of us.
My father’s hands are still larger than mine, more manly. Even his gold wedding band is larger than mine. Like his mother’s, dad’s hands have become gnarled by arthritis, joints swollen and digits bent. Where intravenous ports have been inserted, his hands and forearms are purple with bruises. My hands somehow still look boyish at 60, though the age spots that mottle my father’s hands at 85 are beginning to migrate onto my own.
When the physical therapist takes my father’s two hands in hers and asks him to squeeze, I know she feels the strength he still has left in his body. I feel it when, sitting beside his hospital bed, I hold his hand and he squeezes mine. It’s not the crushing strength of desperation, but the reassuring strength of a handshake.
My father taught me that when you shake hands with someone you ought to use a firm grip and look the other person in the eye, a gesture that communicates substance and self-confidence. No one likes a fishy handshake. I have taught my girls the same thing.
At 18, daughter Tess is willowy, soccer fit and tanned. Last evening, we attended an alumni reception for incoming students at Bowdoin and I watched as she shook hands with the people she met. I could tell that the firmness of her handshake surprised some folks. Her hands are slender and sinewy, but strong and forceful.
I was sorry my father couldn’t be there, being a Bowdoin grad himself. He was a student there when he married my mother in 1948. They celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary on July 31, still together, but apart, my father in the hospital fighting through the confusion of the stroke, my mother at home with health problems of her own. When I asked him if he knew what day July 31 was, he answered me with tears and asked me to send Mom a dozen roses from him.
The day before he suffered the stroke, I had driven dad home from visiting my mother in the hospital and detoured through his old Deering neighborhood. He told me how he had met my mother on a blind date. As we passed through Woodfords Corner, he remembered that, the day before the date, my mother and some her friends had walked past the old Vallee’s restaurant, where he and some of his buddies were having a drink. A friend pointed out the petite blond who would become his wife.
“She had nice legs,” he remembered.
On a wall in my parent’s home, upstairs where neither can safely go now, there is a photograph of them holding hands on their wedding day. A few days after their anniversary, I finally managed to get my mother into the hospital to visit my father. He brightened noticeably when he saw her. They kissed awkwardly, leaning toward each other, both in wheelchairs, both on oxygen. Then they just sat there holding hands, an affirmation of a love that has, against all odds, lasted a lifetime.